“I guarantee you we’re going to get free community college in the next several years,” Biden said during a CNN town hall with Anderson Cooper Thursday. “This is about putting us in the game.”
The president said the free-tuition proposal faced opposition from Sinema and Manchin, who has said he would only support the plan if it included income limits. Neither senator could be reached for further comment.
This is the second time Biden has tried to shepherd more federal dollars to community colleges. As vice president, he was instrumental in President Barack Obama’s 2015 bid to make the schools tuition-free as a way to bolster educational attainment and workforce development. In both cases, higher education experts say politics sank the prospects for proposals that could have been transformational.
“It’s politics trumping ... practicality,” said Martha Kanter, the executive director of the College Promise Campaign, which advocates making the first two years of college free. “This is not just a workforce program; this is a promise to America’s youth and adults.”
Kanter, a former undersecretary of education in the Obama administration, said College Promise programs, as tuition-free initiatives are commonly known, enjoy bipartisan support at the state level and that she had hoped to see that reflected on the federal stage.
There are 33 states and the District of Columbia that cover tuition at community colleges or universities, part of a national movement to use higher education to strengthen the local economy. While the programs have withstood changing political agendas and economies, Kanter and others say federal dollars could ensure their sustainability.
Biden proposed spending $109 billion over a decade to waive two years of tuition at community colleges. House Democrats scaled back the scope to five years at a cost of $45.5 billion to lower the price tag. Their plan provided a more generous funding scheme to entice states to opt in, with the federal government putting up all of the money in the first year and lowering its investment by 5 percent annually for the next four years.
The nation’s more than 950 community colleges have historically played a key role in helping people upgrade skills and résumés when the economy sinks, but the schools have suffered the greatest enrollment losses in the downturn amid the pandemic. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, head count at public community colleges plummeted more than 11 percent from spring 2020 to spring 2021.
Walter G. Bumphus, president and chief executive of the American Association of Community Colleges, urged “Congress to seize this crucial moment in our nation’s pandemic and economic recovery by investing in community college education to benefit students, communities, and local economies.”
He said the schools have been the “on-ramp to the middle class” for more than a century and that investment would send a clear message that the nation values community college education as a pathway to prosperity.
Addressing skepticism over Biden's ability to make community college universal in the future, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Friday that it is too soon to sound the death knell for the policy.
“He’s in the first nine months of his presidency,” she said. “He knows and understands ... that making community college accessible, that ensuring we have a more educated workforce out in the country is in the interest of the private sector, in the interest of U.S. competitiveness, and certainly in the interest of the American people.”
Psaki said there are still discussions about how to make community college more accessible, more affordable. The president has said that increasing the maximum Pell Grant award by $500 is still on the table, a move that would bring the maximum to about $7,000.
While that’s enough to cover tuition at many community colleges, student advocates say it would still fall short of housing and transportation costs that can stymie students with meager resources.
Biden’s free-tuition proposal has faced an uphill battle. Despite public support for the idea, there were divisions within the Democratic Party and among higher-education groups about whether it should be a top priority. Some were more interested in doubling the Pell Grant for lower-income students, arguing it could achieve the goal of covering costs at many community colleges and making four-year institutions more affordable.
Proponents of the tuition plan say it delivers a powerful message to young people, a pledge that cost would not be a barrier to their dreams. Still, standing up a new program that relies on state buy-in would be challenging in this political environment, said Terry W. Hartle, a senior vice president of the American Council on Education.
“This idea is transformative ... but it would not be an easy or quick thing to put in place because you need the states to participate,” Hartle said. “This fundamentally depended on the states, and I’m not sure how many would have gone along.”
Some Republican governors, including New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, have already ruled out participation.
All the same, Hartle said the rejection of Biden’s proposal is not a rejection of community colleges. The schools, he said, are respected across the political spectrum and could see federal investment through Labor Department programs for workforce training.
Neither Biden nor first lady Jill Biden, a professor at Northern Virginia Community College, are conceding defeat.
Speaking on “Good Morning America” on Thursday, Jill Biden said, “This is round one. This is year one. I’m going to keep going.”